World Cups often become a platform for sporting coups. Afghanistan precisely did that, stunning fancied rivals England at Delhi and Pakistan in Chennai. Even if losses were suffered against Bangladesh, India and New Zealand, Hashmatullah Shahidi’s men have shown that they are no push-overs and will compete at all costs. Afghanistan’s cricketing roots can be traced to the refugee camps at Peshawar in neighbouring Pakistan. In the past when the Cold War and the Great Game staged by the Western and Eastern Blocs with Kabul as its pivot bequeathed instability within the rugged Afghan countryside, cricket was a welcome distraction for children as any piece of ramshackle wood and a taped-ball within a camp was adequate to indulge in the sport. Things got worse with the rise of the Taliban and the loss of individual liberties but Afghanistan’s cricketers remain the dispensers of hope. In Rashid Khan, the country has a world-class player. Aggressive openers and a muscular middle order have learnt to blend patience with intrinsic aggression and bowlers refuse to be overawed. All this has kept Afghanistan in good stead. The manner in which England was bundled out or Pakistan’s total was pursued reveals a unit that has turned the corner and would obviously bristle at the mention of the word ‘minnows’.
The Netherlands too mounted the odd upset by nailing South Africa. The two countries with a colonial Dutch connect have cultural, economic and sporting threads linking them and current Netherlands player Roelof van der Merwe has previously turned out for South Africa. The Netherlands may have lost its other games but there is no mistaking its talent. This is a World Cup for which the West Indies failed to qualify. The benchmarks are high and for the Netherlands to scale them, qualify and now compete, it is indeed a tremendous achievement. As the tournament veered towards its mid-point, host India revealed a rich vein of form, winning five games and is close to sealing the semifinal berth. Skipper Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli are the batting bulwarks while Jasprit Bumrah, Ravindra Jadeja and Mohammed Shami played their parts. New Zealand, barring that one loss to India, has been consistent while South Africa and Australia are jostling in the top-half. The wins by Afghanistan and the Netherlands have opened up the points table and small margins will define big shifts in the coming weeks. That defending champion England has slid to the bottom remains a shocker while the Asian component of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are searching for a toehold. And for now, India holds the aces.